A tipping point is coming

Here are some straws in a very strong, important wind:

  • There’s a major US classical music institution — one of the most important in America — whose CEO and board chair routinely say (in private) that the performances they offer are obsolete, not suited to contemporary culture.
  • There’s a top European music festival whose CEO thinks classical music has to change decisively.
  • The deans of two US conservatories want to revamp their curricula, thoroughly, to bring their schools into the modern age. 

I know these things either firsthand, from people directly involved, or secondhand. from people with firsthand contact. I also know that that the CEO of a top American orchestra recently said, on the record (though I don’t think this has been published yet) that the music orchestras play is marginalized in current culture. 

And Peter Gelb, who runs the Met Opera, has been outspoken since the day he took the job — and also before that, when he ran the Sony Classical record label — about the need for change. Plus the League of American Orchestras, which publicly has said that change is needed.

Then all the entrepreneurship programs at music schools — mostly they sit outside the main curriculum, sometimes (though not always) very lightly staffed. But their existence, and rapid growth, shows that even schools that largely do what they’ve always done are making at least a little room for change.

So what does all this mean?

tipping blogI think it means a big change is coming. It’s arresting to think that the classical music crisis has been with us for more than 20 years. That means it’s lasted longer than the Vietnam war, the war in Iraq, or the Great Depression of  the 1930s. Which means it’s very serious.

[Here are ways to date the crisis. I started teaching my Juilliard course about it in 1997. In 1993, the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) published a report called Americanizing the American Orchestra, which called for change. And since the conversations that led to the report had been going on for several years, I’m comfortable saying that the crisis — or the first awareness of it — dates from late in the 1980s. The Americanizing report seems entirely harmless now, full of things that everybody now agrees on. But it was ahead of its time. It was attacked by the then chief classical music critic of the New York Times, and the League — spooked by the attack, and with internal opponents of the report now strengthened — buried it.]

Of course the crisis gets debated. It’s still possible to find people — like Bruce Ridge, the chairman of ICSOM, one of the musicians’ unions — who say in public that the crisis isn’t real.

But those debates, I’m now convinced, are quickly getting pointless. That the crisis is real — and severe — is plain to most of us. It’s also clear that change is sweeping through the field, though most of it, as I’ve said before, has never been catalogued, so most of us don’t know how much of it there is. (For a quick introduction, you can read a list of changes in classical music that I prepared for my Juilliard course.)

But now comes something else — a thoroughgoing consciousness of crisis and the need for change from people in top positions at leading (and so far orthodox) classical music institutions. They don’t talk about this publicly. They may not — yet — have formulated plans for making changes. But they’re convinced the old game is over, and that change must come.

If I’ve run into four examples of this in the last couple of months, without looking for them, without working my contacts or surveying the field, how many more must there be? I’m going to guess — and I think I’m right — that classical music is honeycombed with people, ranging from students to CEOs of top institutions — who think it’s time for change. But many, maybe most of them haven’t yet gone public. So what you see, if you look around the field, is the old ways still persisting, and changes still coming at us from what looks like the outside.

I think that’s going to tip. I’ll rashly guess that, sooner than we think, change (even drastic change) will be the norm, and the people doing things the old ways will look like a minority. All it takes is for the people who say in private that change is needed to go public, in a major way.

And why won’t they? As they know better than anyone, the survival of their institutions is at stake. So let’s look at the first of my bullet points above, the major US classical music institution whose CEO and board chair think that what the institution does is obsolete. The previous CEO used to say, in my hearing, “We have to do something.” Without, God bless him, saying why, or what should be done. His successor now says he’s selling a product from a long-dead age.

What’s next? Unless the crisis, by a miracle, just disappears, the costs and risks of not changing will swamp the costs and risks of change. And so this man’s next step will be some form of public acknowledgment of what he says in private (maybe not as strong, but surely unmistakable). Combined with what you have to have, if you say that things are badly wrong, a thoroughgoing program for change.

This is the tipping point that I see coming. For classical music’s sake, I hope it comes quickly.

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  1. says

    I agree with your analysis Greg but think all of these problems are linked to the non-profit corporate model used in the performing arts. Time is running out for classical music ensembles and festivals to exist solely as non-profit corporations [default 60% administrative and budget expense at unsustainable levels + inherent conflict between board/management/staff and musicians]. It is time to introduce the concept and tools of “private business ownership” to musicians to reallocate and reduce the role and costs associated with administration (celebrate musical talent and resources to increase production, creativity, program and community relevance). Thanks for writing about these issues!

  2. says

    “All it takes is for the people who say in private that change is needed to go public, in a major way.”

    Yes! And I bet some of them are eager to do so, but can’t proceed until they themselves have a specific suggestion about what that change will be. It’s one thing to be a leader and declare something needs to be improved, and another to be a hero and make the improvement.

    Gelb’s example is a good one: he knew the MET (and opera in general) needed broader audiences, and did something to directly address that by bringing the HD productions to screens in many cities– along with “Ambassadors” to attend and further build a local opera-phile community. Both of these things– converting the experience to a different medium, and including the possibility of a pre-concert talk and Q & A that, gasp!, helps to demystify the art, fly in the face of what would have been considered acceptable not too many years ago.

    Like you, Greg, I believe there are a great many arts administrators and artists who are wracking their talented brains every day to unlock the mystery of how to make art more relevant to the society in which it wishes to thrive. An exercise I enjoy is to imagine that I’ve just been dropped to planet Earth out of nowhere (suspension of disbelief is key to creativity!), and am observing the apparent rules of the culture, with absolutely no knowledge of its traditions.

    I recommend this game to everyone (who knows, maybe there’s an identical “Twilight Zone” episode like this that I missed). Untethered to any idea of “how things should be/are usually done,” our minds are set free to question. And to invent, as we view the things that matter to us solely in the context of our present, without the habits of the past to limit our imagination.

    • Brett Netherland (Mission Vista High School) says

      The need for change has been duly noted. Audience numbers are dropping because many are losing interest in the same old classical style. Change is necessary, but how do you change a genre that was created a thousand years ago? It baffles me that people, high end professionals, beg and plead and pry for change, but no one can come up with an idea to follow through with this request. It is challenging to change a genre that has stood the test of time for so long, so my question is, how can it be done?

      • says

        Hi Brett,
        You might be interested to hear some of my comps that blend some urban pop with fun counterpoint and classical development. Goto http://www.cuttime.com and hit play on the streaming audio. Start with Pork ‘n Beans, then City of Trees. I’ve seamlessly woven in rock, Latin, R&B, hip hop, bluegrass, folk, gospel and leave the door open for improvisers to take it further! Gitcha Groove On, on iTunes, is a classical player taking a night on the town looking for a dance groove to fit his mood. It’s SOOO much fun for everyone!
        Then I began to realize how the great composers also borrowed popular dance and folk of their day into their music! Just because we don’t DO those dances anymore doesn’t mean we can’t still appreciate them. And there are further ways to refresh classical music with modern touches (short of adding drums). It doesn’t even take much… just imagining classical music as an ADAPTIVE act and not a “preservative” one. We CAN Americanize classical with Americana!

      • says

        Hi, Brett,

        Classical music may be 1000 years old, but it’s changed repeatedly during that millennium. So there’s no reason it can’t change now. Think of the 18th century — almost everything performed was a new work, and the audience talked during performances, and applauded the moment it heard something it liked. Then, by the end of the 19th century, most of the music played was old, and the audience was mostly silent. Though it still applauded between movements!

        Actually classical music has changed very greatly. If you go to the website for my Juilliard course on the future of classical music and scroll down to the class called “What have people tried?” you’ll see links to many discussions of changes taking place now. The website is at http://www.gregsandow.com/popclass.

        • says

          There’s lots of interesting talk here about audiences (old and new), and musical institutions (innovative and traditional). But what about the musicians? In the coming Great Leap Forward, what role will the rank-and-file orchestral musicians play? Do they and should they matter? Will they embrace or resist change? (Just asking.)

    • says

      Good thoughts, Alex. i think many institutions — orchestras, in particular — are immobilized by two things. First, that they’re maxed out, in staff time and money, with what they currently do. Which gives them very little margin to try something new, especially since new things might fail. Second, these institutions still need to serve their old audience, by doing the old things they’ve done for years. Because they’re still getting the bulk of their ticket income and donations based on these things. That puts them in the position of having to go in two directions at once, the old one and a new one. Which then makes problem one even worse!

      I sympathize, but still — they have to change.

      Peter certainly has tried to take the Met to new places, and we should honor him for that. The movie streaming audience, though, is (or so the Met’s figures showed a few years ago) is 95% people who’ve seen opera on stage ini the past. And it’s quite elderly. So for all the success of the streamings, they haven’t developed a new audience for the Met. Instead, they’ve mobilized an out-of-NY-audience that was always there, but had no way to show itself.

      • Amanuensis says

        Greg, despite what Gelb says, part of the problem with the Met Opera is that it focuses heavily on older, well-established operas, and seems incapable of taking real chances in a big way. Yes, it has gotten better, but compare it to major opera companies in Britain, Germany, France, etc., and there’s no comparison.

        If you look at the current season, there are almost no operas written within the last 20 or even 40 years, almost no operas written by American composers, almost no operas drawing upon the vast array of musical styles, forms and traditions that exist outside of the narrow band of Euro-American classical/art music. This is part of the problem. If you keep giving people the same thing over and over, how can you ever innovate? Does the Met Museum do this? Does MoMa? Do most dance companies? Do literary organizations remain stuck within a narrow band? Yes, some do, but in general classical music, and the American opera world in particular, are notorious for this.

        Next year the Met will feature just a few operas that fall outside the tonal, conventional circle: Nico Muhly’s very new *Two Boys*, and the much older but still distinctive Berg’s *Wozzeck*, Britten’s *Midsummer Night’s Dream*, and Shostakovich’s *The Nose.* I guess you can throw in Dvorak’s *Rusalka* as out of the usual mix too. Out of 27 or so operas! The rest are Verdi, Donizetti, Massenet, Strauss, Bellini, Puccini, etc. Almost none of this reflects the vibrant (though hypergentrified), diverse city or New York or its metro area, or the contemporary US or global musical culture(s), for that matter. It’s maddening.

        Thankfully City Opera did not die, because just this year it treated opera lovers to Thomas Adès’s shocking, wild contemporary opera *Powder Her Face* and Benjamin Britten’s relatively ancient (by comparison) but disturbing and beautiful 1950s work *The Turn of the Screw.* Next fall it will offer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s brand new opera about Anna-Nicole Smith, as well as Bartók’s *Bluebeard’s Castle,* alongside J. C. Bach’s *Endimione* (at El Museo del Barrio) and, for people who want the tried (tired?) and true, Mozart’s *The Marriage of Figaro.* But City Opera, as the truncated seasons now make clear, is on life support.

        Why can’t Gelb and the Met change their ways? Why can’t they figure out more innovative ways to present newer operas, or any operas, and bring new audiences in? Is it inertia? Money? The musicians? The audiences themselves? Whatever it is, it’s really sad, because the Met could be a leader.

  3. Janelle Layman says

    I believe that change is imperative to the prosperity of classical music. With its primary audience growing older, the classical music community needs to create a solution to the issue of declining attendance numbers. To incorporate a wider variety of attendees, they should try to play more modern music, or allow audience interaction. Classical music may be supposed to be “classic,” but if a change does not occur, there is a strong possibility it could fade from society even more than it already is.

  4. Liam Littlejohn says

    Survival is a basic instinct, whether for a corporation or an individual. If something, or someone, does not obey this natural instinct then it dies, it simply ceases to exist. If there is a major crisis within classical music then will such a crisis not eventually solve or avert itself? Those orchestras and coalitions that decide to search for a solution will thrive in a new era, and those that deny any existence of failure, and the downturn of their profit, will simply retire. And if no method of change is found to suit what the audience wants, then the method of performing such music, and this goes for any genre of music (not just classical), can be preserved. Especially in the modern era, where we can record the method for playing any and every style of music through both visual and audible mediums, we can record instructions and visuals, sounds and even the music itself, in a simple bit of data. Thus, if worse comes to worst, and intermission can be taken, a pause from a genre of music for a short time, say a matter of years, and teach the methods that have been preserved to future generations. Although I highly doubt that such drastic measures need be taken, as simply having an orchestra become more interactive towards their audiences or having improvisations within a performance, such changes would be enough for many audiences.

    Mission Vista High School
    Music Comp 3 student

    • says

      Hi, Liam,

      I think you’re exactly right — the crisis has, built into it, the energy for change. The biggest cause of the crisis is cultural. The culture around classical music has been changing for decades now, ever since the ’60s, but classical music hasn’t kept up with the changes.

      But precisely for that reason, change does occur. People in classical music, especially younger people, also function in the wider culture. And so they bring back into classical music the things they’re used to there. And so finally, belatedly, classical music starts to go through the changes the rest of the culture went through decades ago. And at last we have a chance to catch up.

  5. Eric Schiller (Mission VIsta High School student) says

    I agree with this article, however I am unsure whether everyone could agree with changing the way music is presented. Although it is a good idea to experiment with orchestral performances (such as performing modern music and letting the audience interact with the concerts), but who knows how many people would be flexible enough to change their approach toward the audience? To some people, tradition is far too important to let go. But placing the stubborn people aside, classical music is losing its attraction to the majority of people rapidly. We should do whatever it takes just so symphonies and traditional composers are not forgotten; even if that means letting the “non-musical” audience demanding their needs for an entertaining performance. Maybe this is the problem, because in the eyes of a probably classical or traditionalist musician, I might be considered non-musical. Isn’t that sad that I even think that?

    • says

      Good thoughts, Eric. I think you’ve put your finger on an important problem. Many people in the audience, and among musicians and the administrators who run classical music institutions, want things to stay the same. But this is a losing strategy, because the audience keeps shrinking. So we need to find a new audience, which means doing things differently. But for the moment, the old audience is still important — it’s still fairly large, and still brings in the bulk of classical music’s income, from ticket sales and donations. So institutions have to go in two directions at once. They have to still do the old things, but they also have to do new things. Which strains their resources! That’s one reason why change is slow. But at some point, the need for change overwhelms the difficulties, and we’ll see dramatic progress.

  6. Zack Arnold says

    Greg I completely agree with you, especially on page five of your “list of changes in classical music,” from your class. I think that this could increase the numbers for classical music instead of just letting the numbers drop. I think that you have the correct thought on this and your list of changes in classical music is they way to go and for me it would be cool to see the band members perform in the lobby before the actual performance. I now have a question for you. Do you think that it is time for people to let go of classical music and move on to this generation of music? I think that this could be debated; but there aren’t a lot of musical pieces that a string, woodwind, and brass orchestra can do now a days for some composers use synthesizers sounds for sound affects that you can re-create unless you have that synthesizers.

    Zack Arnold, Student at Mission Vista HS

    • says

      Let me take a moment to welcome all the students from Mission Vista HS! Thanks for reading the blog, and for all your smart and thoughtful comments!

      To answer your question, it’s definitely time to move on. But we can’t just drop the old ways, because for the moment they’re still the way that classical music institutions make most of their income. So somehow these institutions (like orchestras) have to do the old things, and also do new things. Which is hard for them. But still they have to do it. They should hire you and others at your school as advisors!

  7. Nathan Moore MVHS student says

    The tipping point of classical music is a necessary change, for its own survival. The way classical music is presented to the audience is still the same way from 50 years ago, in many cases. And I wasn’t born then! This needs to change, we could use any of the changes you suggested in your “a list of changes in classical music.” A change that I have thought of is to get rid of the stage and have the symphony play on the same level as the audience with a projection screen.

    • says

      That’s an interesting idea. One problem, though, is that the halls are quite large, so the seats have to rise up from the orchestra level through several levels of balconies. So some people will be higher than the orchestra no matter what. And the people on the lowest level might have trouble seeing the musicians if the musicians were on the same level. The people in the back rows might not be able to see the musicians at all.

      But these are just details. I think you’re right about how we need some new way of arranging the concert hall. Anyone have more ideas?

  8. says

    The financial effects of how classical music is being handled and paid for is one thing. The artistic side is totally different, although it affects how and who pays for what. One thing I like to say is, that we shouldn’t ‘change’ anything. Rather, we should ‘add to’ what we already have. I personally believe there is a wealth of musical talent not cultivated in the classical sense. That doesn’t mean ‘classical’ style, rather, accessible style. There is a music director in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who understands this well. His name is Jeffrey Reed. Since we performed Neil Sedaka’s work for piano and orchestra, Maestro Reed has started a trend of doing new works by popular composers, including Keith Emerson this September, and Peter Tork (of the famous group, The Monkees), has offered to compose something for piano and orchestra for 2014, and David Gates of the group, Bread, is slated for 2015. very innovative and audience friendly. In each case, these artists will receive Lifetime Achievement Awards in the Arts and Humanities.

    • says

      I think change happens in many ways — dramatic change, slow change. Sometimes people do things that are entirely new, and sweep the old things away. Sometimes they make incremental change, as you’re suggesting. We need both! The first kind can show the way, and can allow experiments so we learn what works and what doesn’t. But if everyone swept the old ways completely into the dustbin, then we’d have complete chaos, and many classical music institutions would end up failing. So, again — we need both kinds of change!

      Very, very interesting about Bowling Green. Thanks for telling us.

  9. says

    Greg: I had a look at your “Juilliard List,” and saw many interesting ideas. However, I notice that most of them address issues of presentation and format. While I agree that there are many things that can and should be done with format, I believe that issues of repertoire lie at the core of the current crisis. Do we need more new music? Absolutely! But, as a culture, let’s be honest with ourselves about the kind of new music we need. The atonal essays of the last century proved to be stillborn art. What we need is new music that resonates within the culture — and there are composers out there who are writing it as we speak: Reich, Glass, Adams, Part, Silvestrov, Bryars, and others. It’s time to get behind the new music that “works” (culturally speaking), and discard what doesn’t. Let’s overthrow the stereotype of the contemporary composer as an alienated weirdo bent on offending his/her audience.

    • says

      Colin, I find life to be very paradoxical, esp. in subjective matters of musical taste. I agree with you that alot of academic contemporary music has turned off many from the orchestra medium. Yet so many say they prefer ONLY music that offends or challenges us. We try to program a balance of BOTH in orchestras and someone is always offended by either the new music or the chestnut. Personally, I think each makes the other sweeter, and that fine art is based on such juxtapositions. Yet most every large city has (or should have) a modern music ensemble, which may or may not meet your standards, but supporting such might build the type of programming you envision (esp. with your column). Perhaps conversely we should have repertory orchestras that only play conventional music, including “undiscovered” composers of old. We must appreciate the good problems before us, of too MANY choices, too MUCH awareness of what we prefer, and not ENOUGH time to sort and enjoy them all.

      • says

        Yes, we do suffer from an embarrassment of riches. But sorting things out is a necessary step in canon formation. And our problem is that the canon is not being renewed: nothing sticks to the wall anymore. The current emphasis on “diversity” in contemporary music — embracing a plurality of styles and voices — is just a refusal to ask hard and honest questions about where the culture is willing to go and where it refuses to go. And yes, there are some contrary voices who demand more high modernism. But this faction is isn’t large enough to call small (tiny would be a better word) and it’s not growing. It’s time we stopped allowing the tail to wag the dog, where new music is concerned.

        • says

          Completely agree with you here, Colin, that changes in presentation aren’t enough. The #1 problem with classical today is that relatable music hasn’t been written for the last 60 years. We need to create a new body of works that really resonate with modern audiences, and far too few composers seem to write that sort of stuff.

          As with any product, it has to be packaged, and I think changes in presentation will be an effective way to communicate to our audiences that this is something new, classical music on THEIR terms.

          Still, all the packaging in the world is useless if the product (the music) ultimately fails.

    • says

      Very, very good point, Colin. I’ll have to change the list I made for my class, and maybe change the way I discuss the whole subject. Thanks for enlightening me! Of course I know very well the truth of what you’re saying, but somehow I sidestepped it in the way I teach my class. You’ve helped me a lot with your comment.

    • says

      Roger, I was wondering when someone was going to post one of those old Time pieces. One of the books often referenced by Greg here, “America’s Symphony Orchestras: and how they are supported” states (pg. 21)

      “In spite of their vitality, growth in numbers, and the volume of their attendance, all symphony orchestras are facing serious financial problems and their future rests on an unstable basis. Receipts from tickets have never been enough to balance the costs.”

      The book was published in 1940.

      Of course, we all understand much of this is due to the cost disease. It would be pointless to deny this (for various reasons). Ironically, however, in Baumol’s most recent book, “The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t” (Yale university Press, 2011) Baumol is also saying that precisely because of what creates the Cost Disease (namely, the unprecedented growth in productivity which creates the growing gap between lowered manufacturing costs and rising service sector costs) that we can actually afford it.

      As he states:

      “The rise in productivity that makes it possible to create commodities with less and less labor, thereby lowering what consumers pay, has occurred in almost every industry. Even services that seem most impervious to productivity growth have participated indirectly in this process. I frequently use the example of a Mozart string quartet written for a half-hour performance as an example of a service that resists reduction of its labor content. But even an activity like live musical performance has benefited from considerable savings in time expended. In 1790, when Mozart traveled from Vienna to give a performance in Frankfort am Main, the trip required six days of extreme discomfort. (At the time, however, that was considered swift—Mozart wrote that he was surprised at the speed of the journey.) Today, the same trip takes only about six hours: 1.5 hours for the airplane flight and 4.5 hours for transit to and from the airport and other preliminaries. Surely this is a marked reduction in the time required for such a musical performance. page 50 (my emphasis)

      Tyler Cowen mentions some other examples of cost savings that the arts benefit from as Joe Patti of Butts in Seats and I have been discussing.

      Baumol continues in his section marked “We Can Afford It All” (his emphasis) he states:

      “With this explosion of purchasing power at our disposal, we can expect to afford even the sharply rising costs of services such as health care and education without cutbacks in quality or quantity. page 50

      What he does emphasize, and I think this is the real root of the problem, not the cost disease itself, is that “[t]he only thing that will change, in terms of the cost to us, is how we will have to divide our money among these items.”

      All this “[b]ecause manufatures and agricultural products are growing steadily cheaper in real dollars while health care and education [and the performing arts] are growing steadily more expensive, we will have to increase the share of money we devote to the latter services.”

      Whether or not we as a society will devote an increasingly larger share of money to the service sectors (including the arts) is the real problem, not the Cost Disease itself. The growing gap between lowered manufacturing/agricultural costs and the rising service industry costs is simply the difference between the average rate of growth of prices between the two.

      The real Scylla and Charybdis here is should we focus on convincing, coercing, or even forcing (e.g. taxing) people into support the performing arts as they are, or do we change the performing arts into something the folks want to support. The ethical difficulties for the former are pretty obvious, especially regarding forced subsidies, but I think folks tend to overlook the dangers of the latter. Too much change, and the performing arts may no longer even resemble a performing art (so the charge goes). I suspect the best answer is somewhere in between the two.

      • says

        Jon, thanks for the Grant and Hettinger quote. I’m always happy to see people reading that book, since it’s our main source for information on how orchestras operated before the 1960s.

        As it happens, I’ve recently reread the book, and so I know — as I trust you do — that the passage you quote is misleading. Yes, G & H really did write the words you quote. But in the rest of the book they give a thorough description of the financial condition of American orchestras in 1940, and nothing they say suggests that there was even the slightest financial crisis then. Instead, everyone was comfortable. The big orchestras made 70 to 90 percent of their income from ticket sales, and nobody had any kind of serious fundraising staff. Fundraising, as G & H tell us, was handled in two ways. Prominent local citizens, probably board members, raised much of what was needed, and the rest came from volunteer work by the orchestras’ womens’ committees. Fundraising was easy in those days compared to what it is now.

        In fact, as one sign of how financially secure orchestras were, you of course remember from the book that they came through the Great Depression in fine shape. No big orchestras went out of business. None were threatened with bankruptcy. They made a few, very small cutbacks. That was it. And smaller orchestras positively thrived. Of the orchestras active in the US in 1940, half were founded during the depression!

        So not even the worst economic crisis in American history — with a 25% unemployment rate and huge drops in industrial production — hurt our orchestras.

        Why then would G & H write what you quoted? I think the explanation is simple. Nobody had ever done a financial study of American orchestras before, and the mere fact that none of them made all their income from ticket sales (and other activities, like radio broadcasts and recording) was new. I don’t know that everyone had remarked on it before. So the idea loomed much larger in 1940 than it does now. Now we take it for granted that orchestras and other nonprofits have to raise money besides what they earn from their activities. In 1940, I believe, the idea was new, and so G & H thought the situation was precarious, even though we can see, with our larger perspective, that it wasn’t anything of the sort.

        When you read the book in full, you see the authors recommending ways to increase both earned and unearned income. But as you know, since you’ve read the book, they do it with no sense of crisis. They never say that their recommendations are necessary if orchestras were to survive. Instead, they’re just being helpful. They don’t, for instance, recommend that orchestras start hiring fundraising staff! They seem to take it for granted that the situation they see before them in 1940 is perfectly sustainable, though it can be made better.

        So the passage you quote has to be taken in its full context. I’m not sure, with all respect, that you’ve done us much of a service by quoting it without the context. If you know anything else in the book, any of the financial or other details that the authors supply in such profusion, that suggests that orchestras were in a difficult or precarious situation, I must have missed it, and I’d be grateful if you’d quote it to me.

  10. Sarah says

    I sure as heck hope you are not advocating the destruction – not “creative destruction”, just destruction – being pursued by the management of orchestras in Minnesota as an example of this “change”.

    • says

      I’m not advocating any such thing. And I’m curious to know why you’d think I might be. It’s important — crucial! — that when we consider the current classical music crisis we get beyond the current orchestral crisis, and the ugliness between managements and musicians. The crisis goes far deeper, and the remedies for it haven’t really been addressed by either side in these disputes.

  11. says

    I agree with you completely, Greg. Times are changing and people need to realize it. Classical music isn’t current; it isn’t speaking to our generation. From performances to education, there is a desperate need for a change of some sort. Classical music is sort of a dying breed, and is loosing its relevance (I am 15 years old). In fact, it’s been irrelevant for a very long time. In terms of education I would like to see a more contemporary approach. My high school has a great music program. I am taking a music composition class where we compose a wide range of genres, as well as a steel drum course where we play our own arrangements of modern music ranging from Led Zepplin to Awol Nation; And we learn the same amount, if not more theory when compared to students in traditional programs. Yet for some reason, the music teachers in the district see our music program as being not as complete because it is not the “traditional “ approach. I’m glad to see other people share the view that change is soon to happen.

    • says

      Is Anne Fennell your teacher? She does marvelous work. Other teachers, too, are starting to do what she does, or invented the same approach independently. Of course, you might have some other marvelous teacher!

      Change is coming, and your thoughts on these things are part of what the change is going to be.

  12. says

    Professional symphony orchestras and opera companies in the United States have most certainly reached a tipping point. In order to continue operating at their individually evolved budgetary high watermarks – they must have those persons who are willing to annually contribute the difference between ticket revenues and the total cost of operating. Those of us in the business know that this can be a huge dollar figure to meet each year.

    Ignoring, for the moment, the number of individuals who want to purchase tickets to live performances of the repertoire that symphony orchestras and opera companies present – or the percentage of the US population that even desires to listen to this repertoire by means of any delivery system – the philanthropic base subsidizing professional classical music in this country is aging and dying.

    Filling that annual financial gap in the budget can only become more difficult. Something has to give. You can lockout your performers who may not wish to perform for less compensation. Or the performers may go on strike. You can seek Chapter 11 protection and reorganize. Or like the Gainesville Symphony did recently – you can just call it quits.

    I do believe, as you seem to Greg, that professional classical music in America has perhaps already passed the tipping point. But I do not think it has anything to do with the repertoire these organizations present. I do not believe that the percentage of the US population that chooses to regularly – let’s be more specific – that chooses daily listen to classical music has not changed significantly since I was a child in the 1950’s. Is it 3%? 5%?

    But just as I believe that a wonder of nature – such as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in the late afternoon sunset – can cause someone like me to immediately burst into tears the first time I saw it, regardless of the fact that El Capitan has been there for millions of years…an incredible musical statement, whether created yesterday or hundreds of years ago can move me in a similar fashion.

    We do live in a mind-boggling environment of popular music, the multitudinous styles of which continue to evolve. But do I not continue to find my favorite Sinatra, Elvis, Beatles or Blood, Sweat & Tears songs to still be wonderful to listen to? I, as part of the 3%, don’t care that Bach wrote the Brandenburg Concertos in the 1700’s. When this music was composed is irrelevant to us.

    Professional classical music institutions in our country will continue to falter and in some cases disappear. Highly trained classical musicians will continue to be asked to work for less or not work at all – or change careers…but not because of classical music and its perceived relevance or irrelevance to current society. It is the philanthropic subsidy for live professional classical performance that is failing.

    In the face of this, thank goodness El Sistema is producing world-class orchestras, staffed by ecstatic young people from Venezuela’s barrios. We can all sleep at night knowing the symphony orchestra will survive. But in the meantime, those of us who are musicians and educators should perhaps ask ourselves: “What can we do, using all the technology available, to help the other 97% of the US population to simply learn how to listen?” …to learn how to give their undivided, un-multitasked, un-texting-cluttered attention to abstract, wordless music and to notice detail in it.

    If we can do this, we will likely not be able to save American professional classical music – but what a gift we would give to all those who have been trained by our culture to think of music as a background to other activities. Even word-filled, popular music might take on new, ‘3-dimensional aspects’ greatly adding to its enjoyment. Who knows, some might even be moved to tears by a recording of Beethoven’s music one late afternoon!

    • says

      thank you George, finally a strong statement that the crisis is not the ‘fault’ of so-called classical music and that the music of the past (like all of the arts of the past) can continue to live and create new experiences. I would like to see more amateur orchestras and music-making so that ticket prices could be affordable, events could be local, and once again new works for orchestra could flourish.

  13. JJC says

    Utterly worthless article. There is no specificity at all. “Hope and change, stuff like that. What is the matter, are you afraid to state clearly what all this means, what you have in mind for the rest of us?

  14. says

    A couple of Modest Proposals: some algorithims to discover why some music is nearly universally enjoyed- Bach / Beatles- and much not. Simple-minded Pop rules our schools,possibly because we teach no ability to appreciate subtlety in any style; is there
    material to teach from? Hire musicians for malls, lunchrooms, waiting rooms, hospitals.
    Let us be in hearing of real music played by real people, in all of its / their complexity. BLJHB

  15. Matty Green says

    Classical music is less relevant than it has been in years, so the debate that things need to change is unnecessary. Why would one let an entire genre of music die out when adaptations can be made to support a comeback? As a high school student myself, I cannot say that I have ever had the experience of attending a classical music concert because I don’t have any interest in doing so. Concerts are meant to be fun, and full of energy, not lifeless and quiet. I recommend that classical music should have newer pieces rather than playing the old ones over and over again. Bringing something new to the table I think will help classical music the most and help bring back the audience and keep them interested.

    • says

      Matty, might I humbly suggest that you explore this blog a little further? There are some great examples in Greg’s series of posts on Looking for Mavericks http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2012/12/looking-for-mavericks.html These people are doing what they can to make their concerts more “full of energy, not lifeless and quiet”. Plus (gratuitous self promotion alert) I’m navigating a new path for myself as a performer into something much more exciting than a regular classical music concert. Check it out, I’d love to hear your feedback! http://www.artsjournal.com/sandow/2013/03/from-sally-whitwell-adventures-in-performance.html

    • says

      Matty, there are also many of us musicians who are taking classical, even symphonic music, into non-traditional places like coffeehouses and clubs. I’ve adapted symphonic favorites for my three ensembles and compose music which blends rock, Latin, R&B, even hip hop styles with classical forms. Click on my name to hear some samples. I organize two chapters for the Classical Revolution (.org) movement which began in San Francisco in 2006. The movement has turned alot of people on to the power of this music and we hope some will start buying tickets to fully rehearsed concerts and listen in a spirit of meditation to maximize that power.

    • says

      hi Matty, so-called classical music is a very very large repertory that stretches back 1000 years in the West and to many people, young and old, it is still very relevant. Just because something was written 100 years ago does not make it something that people today cannot relate to, anymore than reading, say, the Bible, or Shakespeare, or Mark Twain, or …. you get the idea. I teach music in college to non-musicians. I require a concert report. Unfortunately most of my students are not very open-minded about it. Most of them begin their paper with this sentence: “I have never been to a classical music concert before, but I knew I wasn’t going to like it” Most of them end with something like this: “I was surprised! The music was awesome and I enjoyed it. This was a positive experience and I’d go to another concert in the future.” So, don’t pre-judge. With all the music out there, there’s bound to be some “classical” music that you like and find exciting, maybe not now, but maybe at some point in your life. Keep an open mind.

  16. J. Theakston says

    Mismanagement is the 800-lb gorilla no one is addressing correctly here, and it’s rampant in the performing arts. The music is not the problem, the marketing is. Many American orchestras are going under because the inmates are running the asylum—instead of having trained media people who can bring actual facts to their marketing table, you’ve got conductors and orchestra players stubbornly basing shows around their own opinions. The amusements market is paper thin, but the loudest voice with the strongest persuasion wins the audience.

  17. Kyle M. says

    I believe this tipping point in classical music is caused by a change in our human minds. We desire what is attractive to us, and much of our newest generation does not connect with classical music; they feel it is old because it is presented that way in classical concerts. I am not saying that classical music should change its roots entirely, but to simply appeal to people who have never been exposed to classical music. My recommendation for classical concerts would be to provide a relaxed and casual atmosphere and maybe even provide foods and beverages during a concert; I believe that this will appeal to people who have never connected with classical music and people who have loved classical music. I am sure there are other ways to bring more people into the classical genre and I hope others
    try to discover and apply them at concerts soon. -Student of MVHS